Tuning Fork or Electronic Tuning Device (ETD): Why do people often not trust “machine” tuners?

Tuning Fork or Electronic Tuning Device (ETD)?

The age old question and debate… which is better? A piano tuner who uses only the “good-old-fashioned” tuning fork? Or, a piano tuner who uses an electronic tuning device (machine)?

The simple answer…neither! Or maybe…both! The fact is, that it totally depends on the tuner and their training, their ear, lever technique in setting the tuning pin, and such…not just the device they use as a reference. Ultimately, it is the tuner’s job to tune the piano!

Let me interject a disclaimer here. I began my tuning career 20+ yrs. ago as an “machine only” tuner, and I admit that I relied way too much on the machine before learning the proper checks and tests to produce a more excellent tuning. I always used chords and some very basic checks to “check” my work…as far as I knew to do, so my tunings were more than acceptable for my small circle of clients, but not anywhere as good as they could have been. One thing I never did, however, was to totally rely on my machine for tuning every string on the piano. That, to me, has always been totally unacceptable and produces very poor results. Suffice it to say, I still had much room for improvement and continue to this day to hone my aural tuning skills.

So, my point in this article certainly is not to bash tuners who are just starting out, I’ve certainly been there, and done that, but my intention rather is to 1) attempt to explain why “machine only” tuners typically get a bad rap, 2) encourage beginning tuners, or those who rely on their machines too much, to consider learning as soon as possible to incorporate aural tuning checks into their ETD work rather than relying totally on the machine, and most importantly, 3) to help the general public to understand that they don’t have to be afraid of using a tuner that uses a “machine”. The truth is that an ETD that is set up and used properly, in conjunction with standard aural tuning, can produce 1st class results…and in my opinion can equal, or be potentially better in many cases than a tuning done by ear and tuning fork alone. Rather than assume that a tuner will produce poor results based on the method they choose to use, it would be much better to research the tuner and check their references before hiring them, assuming the best in them until you are given reason to believe otherwise.

Electronic Tuning Devices can help produce superior results when used properly!

There have been double blind tests performed in our tuning circles to see if professional “fork only” tuners could determine whether a piano had been professionally tuned “fork only” or “machine only”, and the results clearly showed that they could not tell the difference. Reason….the machine tuner was also using the exact same aural skills to check their work as did the one who tuned just by ear.

I currently use an Accutuner III to primarily tune the temperament and one string of each note up and down the scale (all the while using standard tuning checks and tests to be sure the spacing between each note is correct). I then turn the machine off and tune the rest of the piano, pulling in the unisons completely by ear.

All Electronic Tuning Devices, though, are Not the Same!

A word or two about ETDs. All are not created equal. For instance, a simple guitar tuner, while it may tune all 12 notes of the scale, will produce VERY poor piano tunings…especially if used for more than just the temperament octave in the center of the piano. The reason….a difficult concept in a nutshell…inharmonicity of the piano strings will force the bass to have to be tuned a bit flatter, and the treble will have to be tuned a bit sharper in pianos…and in varying degrees for different sized and scaled pianos. A guitar tuner does not account for this stretch.

Good ETDs are designed just for tuning pianos, but must also be used correctly. For instance, most will have either presets for common pianos, where someone has already measured the inharmonicity of a particular brand/model piano scale, OR the machine will allow the tuner to take their own readings before the tuning in order to measure the pianos inharmonicity before they begin tuning. This is very important in order to match the machine to what the ear hears aurally. Once this scale is set, the tuner may proceed, usually tuning the piano aurally, just like someone using a tuning fork, but using the display to help get real close, real fast. Good ETD tuners will then make the same aural checks that a “fork only” tuner would make before proceeding to the next note.

Car Mechanic Analogy!

Electronic Tuning Devices in the hands of a skilled tuner can produce exceptional results. They are kind of like high quality diagnostic tools used by today’s mechanics. I, personally, would be a little leery of leaving my vehicle in the hands of a mechanic who only used tools available at the time cars were invented…or using just a stethoscope to diagnose my engine troubles. I want my mechanic to have all the latest tools at his disposal. I also would want him to know how to properly use them, but he’d also better know more than just the basics of car repair, too…not just how to read what a machine tells him. Machines, when programmed properly and set up correctly for the task at hand, will usually give proper results. However, machines can sometimes be wrong…and the person interpreting the machine MUST know the difference.

So…a good ETD tuner should know how to set the machine up for the particular piano being tuned, make all necessary checks while tuning, and rely on aural results, using the display only as a guide to get close. In addition, I believe that all unisons should be tuned by ear. Meaning…tune only one string of a particular note to the reference, and then tune the other strings, cleanly, to the first totally by ear.

OK, so for those who still believe that ETD’s have no place in tuning pianos, and that any tuner worth their salt should be using a tuning fork, let me ask you this?

Are there excellent “fork only” tuners? Of course!

Are there poor “fork only” tuners? Naturally, I would imagine there are, yes! (I’ve known some!)

Are there excellent “machine only” tuners? You bet!

Are there poor “machine only” tuners? Absolutely!

So, the answer is “yes” to all of the above questions. There are both  excellent and poor piano tuners, despite their method.

Why then do people tend to not trust “machine” tuners?

So, if there are both excellent and poor piano tuners using both tuning methods, then why do so many people insist on, and pride themselves on hiring, a “fork only” tuner while giving disapproving looks at another tuner when they pull out an electronic tuning device?

I think the answer is 3 fold:

1) I think we like to romanticize the “good old days”. We tend to believe that if was good enough back then, it should be good enough now.  Some believe that if Grandma’s tuner used a tuning fork, that must be the right way, so their tuner must also. Or, we’ve heard all our lives that “fork only” tuners are simply the best, we don’t know exactly why, but we believe it.

Now, consider for a moment, the potential weakness of that argument. A piano tuner who uses only a tuning fork, but doesn’t really know how to tune aurally very well (and there are those) may impress his/her customers that they “tune the old fashioned way”, but in reality they will produce a less than pleasing tuning.  Likewise, a tuner that uses a machine only (which often uses a visual display to stop a moving display of some sort when the note is “in tune”) but hasn’t refined their aural tuning skills may also produce the same less than pleasing tuning (unfortunately, in my earlier years I fell into this category).

So then, of the two examples above (“fork” only tuner who has poor aural skills, or “machine” only tuner, also with poor aural skills) which is better? Well, no matter what your stereotyped or romanticized image of the better tuner was before, the answer is really…neither. Both failed to tune the piano properly, not because of the device they used as their reference, but because they lacked the skill to use their device properly in combination with the necessary aural checks to ensure their tuning was in fact the best that it could be.

However, both types of tuners, “fork only” or “machine only”, IF they know how to use aural checks to check their work as they go, have the potential to produce very excellent tunings. In fact, near identical tunings in most cases.

2) I think there is some truth to the ETD stereotype. While there is no way to estimate if there are more good/bad “fork only” VS “machine only” tuners in the world, I would guess (as much as I hate to admit it) that there are likely more poor ETD tuners out there than poor “fork only” tuners.  I base my opinion on the fact that it’s easier. Virtually anyone can grab and ETD, get a tuning lever, some mutes, print some business cards and claim to be a tuner without really learning how to tune properly. In fact, many start tuning for themselves, then for a friend, or even as a part-time business for some quick side job income, but never intend to better their tuning skills. They have their tuning lever and machine, and they’re “good-to-go”. While this may be fine for friends and family, its not fine for more discerning customers, not to mention all the repairs and adjustments that they may not be prepared to tackle. Therefore, an ETD in the hands of an inexperienced tuner will produce very amateur results even though it gives the average customer the impression of their piano being “in tune”.  The piano may be left sounding better than it was, especially if it was terribly out of tune to begin with, but it will still be quite unacceptable by most tuning standards.

Also…even if the tuner is more skilled in aural tuning, there is still a “tendancy” for some ETD tuners to get lazy and rely too much on their machine and to skip the necessary aural checks. If a tuner is just “stopping the lights” on their machine, for instance, and is not playing 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, octaves, etc. and their tests as they go (to prove that the notes are in the correct place), then they will most certainly get a mediocre tuning at best.

Conversely, and in theory, a “fork only” tuner “should” be relying on those checks all the time since they have no other reference such as a machine to fall back on. Again, anyone can pull out a tuning fork and “give-it-a-go” and come up quite short of a good tuning, but typically the idea is that if you learn first to tune a good temperament aurally from just a fork, there’s a good chance you will be able to produce acceptable tunings.

So then, what’s the real issue?

The problem, then, is not that all ETD tuners are bad. The problem is that there are just enough poor ETD tuners out there, many of which are “tinkering” with the idea of tuning, which only winds up  perpetuating the stereotype.  True, finding a good tuner (either “fork only” or “machine only”) is often difficult…and it may be slightly more difficult finding good ETD tuners, due to factors described earlier, but rest assured they are out there…and worth every penny to hire! Don’t be afraid of the tuner who uses a machine….but do your homework, ask questions of your tuner, watch and listen as they tune, get recommendations from other clients if you need, but bottom line, give ETD tuners a fair shake rather than writing them off as being unqualified to do the job. 

In the customers defense, many customers DO know an excellent tuning from a poor one and don’t want to be charged for a professional tuning when they are getting anything but.  So, it stands to reason that they would take their chances with a “fork only” tuner rather than risk hiring someone who just tunes every string on the piano by stopping the lights. That type of tuning gives those who have studied, practiced, and tuned thousands of pianos in our careers a bad name,  and it further perpetuates the distrust of ETD users.

3) Our past experiences with tuners. It’s pretty obvious that if you have had a good or bad experience with a tuner in the past, it will greatly affect your opinions and decisions about who to hire in the future. If you had a “fork only” tuner tune your family piano all your life, and had good memories of them, then you will be more apt to desire to duplicate that experience. Similarly, if you you had a poor experience with an EDT tuner in the past, or heard of someone who had, you will be apt to steer clear of anyone toting one of these devices, no matter if they really know how to use it or not. The following is one such experience.

A Bad Experience with a Poor ETD Tuner. On one occasion, I found myself sitting in an orchestra, just behind an ETD piano tuner that was tuning our stage grand piano for our week long family camp. (he was accidentally double booked for our rehearsal time, so we were a captive audience waiting for him to complete his job). He, of course, was unaware of who I was, or that I also tuned pianos professionally. Since I also use an ETD (Accutuner III), I was curious to watch his method of tuning using his ETD, hoping to maybe learn something new.  I always enjoy learning new things that might make my work better and easier…besides, I’m a strong believer that we never stop learning. Well, I learned something alright! I learned why some people have a distinct distrust for tuners who use machines. What I saw him do really shocked and frustrated me, to say the least. In the 40 min. that it took him to tune the piano, he did not play one single chord, he did not make one check of his 4ths, 5ths, octaves, etc, and he tuned every string in the piano (at least one string per note) to the machine to stop the lights. No setting of the temperament. No checking intervals. Nothing. He “might” have tuned the unisons by ear as he went along, but it wouldn’t have mattered since the rest of the intervals were so off. Needless to say, it was a very poor tuning, he got paid, and we had to live with it. I had left my tools at home, 3 hr. away, or I would have probably re-tuned it properly during some down time…just because! The sad thing is that there are many of those kind of tuners out there making money at it every day, frustrating their customers, and giving ETD tuners a bad name.

The bottom line: good tuning depends on good aural skills, and the ability to maneuver the tuning lever and set the tuning pin properly…regardless of whether a tuning fork or ETD is used.

Just remember, don’t pre-judge your tuner based on their method alone. If they produce a great tuning, that is the only thing that really matters.

Until next time, make a joyful noise!

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Has Your Piano Action ever been Reconditioned?

If you own a piano more than say 30 yrs. old (and that would likely be a great majority of you) then here’s a great question for you to consider…

Has your Piano Action ever been Reconditioned?

 

First you ask…”A Piano Action? What is that? My piano has one of those?” And your next question is likely “What is reconditioning ?” And “why do I need to have my piano action reconditioned?” After all, the nice salesman when I bought the piano guaranteed that my piano would last forever and I would never have to do anything else to it, other than tune it. Well, not to be too hard on the salesperson, but given how pianos are designed and the materials that are used, that sort of statement just cannot be true. As long as pianos are made with materials that wear, they will need routine maintenance to repair, replace, adjust, clean, and lube them.

So, the answer to the first questions is “YES”.  Most (if not all) pianos have an “action”, which contains most of the working parts of the piano (the guts) that need to be removed from time to time for routine service and adjustments. The answer to the second question, “What is reconditioning ?” And “why do I need to have my piano action reconditioned?”,  lies in the below explanations…..

 

First, there are basically two major types of piano actions.  Upright actions and Grand actions.

 

upright action

Upright Piano Action

Upright Actions:

Upright actions (spinets, consoles, studios, old uprights) consist basically of the the hammers, the whippen assemblies, and the dampers. Each is mounted to a series of rails that hold them in proper alignment to the strings and keys so that when a key is depressed to play a note, energy is properly transferred from the key to its corresponding string(s). Upright actions are by nature quite a bit simpler in design than the grand actions. This is primarily due to the fact that the upright action does not have a specialized repetition lever like the grand does.

Most upright actions are pretty easy to remove from the piano for repairs. The exception to this would be most spinets and player pianos. They are some of the most difficult actions to work on.

 

 

Grand Piano Action

Grand Piano Action

Grand Piano Actions:

Grand Piano Actions are similar in basic function, but in many ways quite  different. The grand action parts are also mounted on a series of rails that can be removed from the piano for service and adjustments. Noticebly different, however, is that the hammers are in a different orientation than on the upright action.    The grand action also contains the keys which the upright doesn’t.  In addition to the keys, the grand action also holds the hammers, and whippen  assemblies. The whippen assemblies of most modern grands have a repetition lever which allows a note (the “jack” for those know their piano parts) to fully reset before the key has risen totally back to rest. This allows for better “repetition” of the note than in uprights. An upright key has to fully rise back to rest position for the note (“jack”) to reset in order for the next note to be played.

 

Moving on…..

This is not a lesson on how actions work, however, I did want you to know that there are basic differences between each type action and that all actions can be….and NEED to be removed from time to time for routine cleaning and maintenance.

 

Reconditioning:

Reconditioning is a term which refers to a combination of procedures that is done on a piano action to bring it back to good operating condition again. Actions that I recondition will always be thoroughly cleaned, screws tightened, moving parts lubricated, worn or broken parts repaired or replaced, and hammers shaped.

 

Most pianos I service are well past needing reconditioned, to be quite honest. Years of playing have compacted the leather and felt parts whose purpose are to create cushions between certain parts and keep others in proper alignment and adjustment. The felt hammers that strike the strings also get compacted and deeply grooved over time and tone is eventually adversely affected, not to mention the damage that is occurring to the hammer itself. A piano that is never maintained will eventually begin to deteriorate and fall into disrepair. As one part fails, it puts added wear and stress on other parts, and the damaging effects begin to multiply throughout the piano.

 

Below are some of the main things that are usually addressed when an action comes to the shop for reconditioning:

 

hammer flange screws

Hammer Flange Screws

Tighten all Action Screws: There are close to 300 screws in an average piano action (not including the ones used for adjustments). That’s 300 screws that just hold hammers and whippens tightly to the rails in proper alignment, screws that hold the damper heads at the proper height and alignment to the strings, screws that hold the action frame together, and so on. As humidity in the air changes, the moisture content of the wood rails and wood hammer/whippen flanges will change in size and shape slightly and cause screws to become loose in time. If your piano is making clickety – clackety noises while you play, there’s a good chance you have loose flange screws throughout the action. Other things can cause these sounds too, but loose screws are an easy place to start. Loose screws lead to all sorts of trouble, including, loose, wobbling hammers…which in turn will grind the face of the hammers flat…which ruins the hammers.  Tightening screws is an important, but highly overlooked maintenance item that is very easy and doesn’t take all that long to do.

One short example: I played a piano a couple weeks ago that had a very noisy action, and by simply tightening all the screws, the piano played so much differently…quiet and solid feeling like it’s supposed to be. Amazing.

 

Hammer Shaping

Hammer Shaping

Hammer Shaping: Shaping the hammers can help restore the piano’s tone. After the screws are all tightened, now is the time to shape those hammers to bring back their nice round shape that helps them rebound off the strings as they were intended to do. Flat hammers hit the strings with more of a “thud” and transfer an excessive amount of energy to the string. This can cause broken strings and/or broken hammer shanks. Hammers will always have some grooves, but those that have deep grooves really should be shaped if they can. After being heavily shaped several times, hammers can become too small to function correctly and the set will need to be replaced, but don’t let that concern you. Most pianos have never had their hammers shaped, so they can sure stand it. Once done, if the piano is not a concert piano being used heavily all the time, the shaping will last for many more years to come.

 

dirty actionCleaning and Lubricating Action Parts: Piano actions, like everything else, will collect years of dust. That dust works itself down into all the small moving parts of a piano and can gunk it up quite well, causing sluggish notes, squeaks, a very heavy feel to the keys, notes that don’t repeat, and things like that. Actions can be removed from the piano, moved outdoors, and carefully blown out with compressed air to remove most dust and foreign objects from the action. Some parts can be brushed lightly to remove other dirt that remains, and the action can be lubricated as needed to free up any tight moving parts (note: only special lubricants made for pianos should be used and unless you know what you are doing, any removing of the action and cleaning should be done by a trained piano technician to prevent costly damage to your action).

 

bridle straps

Bridle Straps

Bridle Straps: A very common repair is to replace the bridle straps on an upright action. These straps are necessary to be in good condition and adjusted properly so that the action can be removed and replaced in the piano properly for servicing. Without going into too much explanation, suffice it to say that without the bridle straps in place to hold certain piano parts in place (whippens), the action is very difficult to put back into the piano without damaging parts. During reconditioning, these are almost always replaced if worn or missing.

 

Much Felt/Leather in an Action

Much Felt/Leather in an Action

Worn Felts/Leathers: There 88 keys on most pianos, therefore on those pianos consider that there are also 88 hammer assemblies, 88 whippen assemblies, and either 88 keys(grands) or 88 dampers (uprights) on the removable action. So, for every note on the piano, (see grand piano note in picture which shows a key, whippen assembly, and hammer assembly) there are approximately 15-25 small pieces of felt or leather that are used to cushion, control friction, stop hammer travel, quiet action noises, dampen strings, etc. That’s between 1320 and 2200 pieces of felt/leather just in an average piano action.  They do wear with age, harden, get dry and brittle, fall off because of failing glue, not to mention those that become nesting materials for mice or insect larvae, as well as damage caused by moths. So, there is a very good chance, especially on older pianos, that some felts/leathers may need replaced in order to help your piano action function properly as it should.

 

 

old dampers

Old Dampers

Dampers: Damper felts will harden, compress, and deform over time and can cause poor string dampening. Sometimes you will hear a “zoink” sound, or a slight buzz sound just as the dampers contact the string as you slowly let up on the key after playing a note. While not necessarily a standard thing to replace while doing an action reconditioning, if yours needs it, while the action is in the shop is a great time to have them replaced.

 

If your piano action has never been reconditioned, it would be wise to ask your piano technician to evaluate whether or not your piano is in need of being reconditioned. If done correctly, you will be amazed at the difference that a clean, well functioning action will make to your playing.

 

Until next time…”Make a Joyful Noise!”

 

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How to Prepare for your Piano Tuner’s Visit

So, you’ve scheduled tuning, now what?

 

The reason for this post is because even though there is usually not much to do to prepare for the piano tuner’s visit, I am often amazed at how many customers don’t do much, if anything.  After all, they usually don’t have to prepare anything for the A/C repairman or plumber.  Why would they need to for the piano tuner?

Prepare?  Like….what kind of prepare?  I thought the piano tuner just comes in, sits at the piano, plays a bunch of enharmonic non-sense for about an hour, then leaves, and my piano is now somehow, almost magically, in tune. What do you mean prepare?

 

Well, as I said, there are not a lot of things necessary to prepare for your tuner’s visit, but there are a few things that can make a big difference.  Here are a few of the basic things would help me if I came to your home or organization to service your piano.

 

1) Prepare your schedule before the tuning. Try to be there before the appointed time. I will try to honor your time, and I expect the same courtesy.  If emergencies come up, please try to contact me and I will do the same.

 

2) Prepare your schedule and activities during and after the tuning.  Allow plenty of time for the tuning and for any unexpected things that might come up.  This basically means, don’t schedule a tuning 2 hours before you have to leave for a wedding.  Not good planning. It puts a lot of pressure on me to finish early lest I spoil your outing.  Besides that, if a repair issue does come up, there will either be no time to do the repair at all, the repair gets rushed and is done poorly, or we have to schedule another trip for the repair.  Also, if you do have somewhere to be later, please let me know up front so I know how to plan.  From my experience, there’s nothing quite like working merely along thinking you’ve got plenty of time, when out of the blue the family starts rushing around, looking at their watches, and giving you the eye that you’d better start wrapping it up….like yesterday….only to find out that they have a dinner date in 15 min. that they didn’t tell you about.  Well, that’s embarrassing!  Especially since I was ahead of schedule according to how long it normally takes, however, they never bothered to find out before hand how long a typical tuning takes.  That lack of planning put both of us in a very tight spot.

Also, it’s a good idea to plan your activities during the tuning…(or around the tuning might be a better thought).  Some “normal” household activities and chores that you’re accustomed to doing at that time may have to wait because of the noise they produce.  Try to plan activities that are considerate of the quiet I need in order to do my best job for you.

 

 

3) Prepare the piano by clearing the piano top completely of lamps, nick-knacks, doilies, figurines, books, sheet music, and such (both grands and uprights). I can’t count the number of times I’ve arrived and have had to either wait for the customer to clear off the piano, or have had to clear it off myself.  Some pianos have as little as a lamp on top, and others…..well, at Christmas, for instance, the entire town of Bethlehem…in fragile, ceramic figurines!   I prefer the customer to have done it before I arrive so that I can get right to work, and so I am not responsible for any broken items.  I am always nervous handling other people’s things because invariably, I will pick up the figurine that looks like it’s all one piece, but actually it’s two pieces, and they seem to want to separate in mid air somehow.  Not too good for customer relations.   Grands are just as important to clear as uprights since I usually like to lift the lid to give clearance for my mutes behind the dampers in the treble areas.

Note: It is usually not necessary to move the piano away from the wall.  Sometimes I will on a first visit to inspect the back of uprights, or I may need to move them an inch or two so the lid will not bind against the wall when opened, however, I am accustomed to moving them if I need to.

 

4) Prepare the area around the piano, and provide a bench.  This seems like a no-brainer, but I’ve come to pianos that had no bench, and all the chairs in the house were of the odd type (ie: bar stool, lawn chair, etc.)  A bench or hard chair of about 19″ or so will usually suffice.  The area around the piano should at least be tidy.  I live in my home too, so I know that things can get disorganized when you live there…however, I try to tidy up when I know someone’s coming to visit.  At the very least tidy up the area immediately around the piano so I have a place to walk without tripping, and so I’ll have a place to set my tools and the piano case parts when they are disassembled for tuning and inspection.  Adequate room lighting is also helpful.  I do have lighting if needed, but it’s always helpful if there is already adequate room lighting available.

 

5) Prepare the family.  Please let your family know ahead of time that you’ve scheduled the piano tuning and let them know the expectations on them during the visit.  It is crucial that they all know that video games, CD players, Radios, TV’s, and all other noise producing items will need to be kept OFF, or their volumes at a bare minimum during the tuning.  Even though I am playing loudly, I am listening to minute changes in beats, pitch, etc, so I need it pretty quiet.  It’s also probably not the best day to invite the neighborhood friends over after school, nor the day for dad to be running the table saw in the adjoining workshop or garage!

 

6) Prepare your pets. Not sure how this works, but it would be nice if we could!  You know your pet(s), and you know what that may mean for each of them.  I get along good with most pets, and one thing that is sometimes helpful for many pets is if you will allow them to meet me first, even if they are going to be kept in a back bedroom, basement, etc. during the tuning.  Usually after meeting me, their curiosity is satisfied, then all is well.  For those pets who are more curious than some, please know that my tuning kit contains some chemicals and such that can be harmful to pets and children if they were to get into them.  While I try to keep a close eye on that, it is always helpful if you can help me keep an eye on your pets, and children too for that matter.  Nuisance pets I’d just prefer be kept in another area of the home until the tuning is completed.

 

7) Prepare the neighbors! You think I jest? While it’s not always necessary, possible, or practical, sometimes it is appropriate to notify the neighbors before my visit.  I tuned for a lady one time that opened all the windows as soon as I got there. Yippee for the neighbors!  I know she was trying to save running the A/C, but I really didn’t feel comfortable tuning her piano as the neighbors were out in their yards mowing (which was a distraction to me with the windows open), walking their dogs, planting flowers, etc. and I’m sure they didn’t need to hear me!  Should she have notified her neighbors? Not necessarily, but she might have at least thought a little more about the situation and have closed the windows and maybe turned on the A/C.

I do, however, often tune in condo’s or apartments where there are more than one family present in the building.  One time as I tuned, I noticed a person on the other side of the wall (in the adjoining apartment) that decided to practice their bass guitar while I was tuning. When they heard me tuning, they tried to match the notes I was playing. While I’m sure it was a neat learning time for them, wow, what a mess it was for me.  This might have been avoided if the customer had just politely notified the adjoining household that I would be there for a span of a couple hours.  By letting them know ahead of time that it would only be a couple hours could have potentially saved the neighbors from getting too upset as well, because as at least they would have had an idea of about when the monotonous pounding might be winding down.

 

8) Churches/Organizations – Have temperature of the sanctuary, etc. at operating temperature several hours before I arrive.  It is important to have the piano tuned at the temperature that it will be used.  Also, janitors vacuuming in the sanctuary while I’m tuning is not a good thing.  Don’t ask me how I know!  I know they have a job to do, but a little planning could avoid those awkward moments.

 

8) Prepare your method of payment. It’s always a good idea to have your method of payment thought out before I arrive.  I don’t accept credit cards at present, and we could be in an awkward situation come billing time if that was the only method of payment you had planned on.  I’ve had clients run to the bank or ATM while I finished the tuning because they had forgotten to plan for it or their checkbook was lower on funds than they realized.

 

 

I’d better stop there.  The more I write, the more things I think of.  Please know that my goal is to service your piano to the best of my ability as well as to satisfy you as a customer, not to hold you to a list of things I need in order to tune your piano.  Not at all!  Through many years of doing service calls I have learned that it is super important for me to be flexible because every situation will be unique. which is good.  However, with a little planning and preparation, many average service calls could have been superb service calls.  It is my hope that these tips will help you when planning your next tuning, whether with me or someone else, so that everyone involved has the best tuning experience possible.

 

Until next time….make a joyful noise!

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Why be Quiet? After All, the Tuner is Making Quite a Racket!

So, today’s question….”is it really necessary to be completely quiet while the tuner is tuning my piano?”

After all, the tuner is making quite a racket.  With all the pounding of notes and all the noise they’re making, surely it doesn’t matter, right?  I don’t have to be quiet when the A/C guy comes to fix my furnace, or when the plumber comes to fix my sink.  Why do I have to be quiet when the tuner comes to tune the piano.  He makes much more noise than those other guys do!

 

Tuners play loudly to equalize string tension and stabilize the piano.

Well, actually, it matters a great deal!  If you’ve read my other posts, you might recall me explaining the reason tuners play so loudly when tuning. Rest assured it’s not that they are deaf and can’t hear what they’re doing. The purpose of their loud blows is to equalize the tension along the entire length of the strings. If that is not done, the piano will not stay in tune when you go to play it moments after the tuner leaves.  So, if your tuner doesn’t play somewhat loudly, and if they try to convince you that they can tune very softly so as not to bother you…..you might want to begin looking for a new tuner.

 

The tuner is actually listening to beats and relationships between different notes.

With that said, through all the seemingly thoughtless “banging” of the same notes…over and over…..it is important to realize that the piano tuner is actually listening very intently to the beats, or “wah-wahs” that are produced when two strings are played together.  The tuner is either counting beats between two different notes (intervals) to make them “wah-wah” at the correct speed for that interval, OR, the tuner is listening in order to eliminate any beats, as is the case when tuning one string to another of the same note (unisons).  It may appear as though the tuner is not paying much attention, and sometimes tuners can even carry on basic conversations while tuning or look around the room at pictures, etc, but the fact is that he/she is still listening and making judgements based on those little beats.  Most customers don’t even know the beats exist unless the tuner makes mention of them and/or demonstrates it to them.  Then they become very obvious.

 

What about tuners that use an Electronic Tuning Device (ETD)?

Good question.  After all, it appears that all they’re doing is stopping the lights, and not really listening, right? Wrong, wrong, wrong!  At least they’re not supposed to just tune by what they see.  ETD’s when used correctly can be a tremendously accurate instrument intended to verify what the tuner is already hearing.  It helps the tuner get very close, very quickly, but where the string finally stays should be determined by what is heard……always!  So, even though your tuner may use an ETD, they should also be listening, and what they hear should “trump” what they see.

 

Silence is golden!

So, noise that seems like no big deal to the customer is a HUGE deal to the tuner.  He/she must have a certain level of quiet in order to concentrate and hear those beats.  For me, some conversation (even conversation with me) is sometimes acceptable while tuning, so long as it’s at a very low level and not all the time.  An occasional comment, question, etc. is no big deal. I will occasionally speak with clients while tuning, so long as it’s not a lengthy, deep conversation.  One or two people in a room asking a question of the other is also usually not a problem as long as they are being considerate.  However, if it becomes a lengthy conversation, volume level raises, the topic becomes heated or argumentative, if there are several people in the room, or there are kids hollering and playing noisily, then it becomes very distracting.  I don’t do it often, but I’ve had to stop tuning at times and ask for quiet when it started to interfere with my concentration.

 

Other things that are very disruptive to a tuner’s concentration are:

Running dish water, blenders, washing machines, some dish washers, and things like that.  The occasional coffee grinder, especially if a cup is intended for me, is not as bad as the continual running of water and clanging of cups and plates for 25 min. while washing dishes.   TV’s must be kept at a very low volume, even if in the other room or another floor, and OFF if in the same room as the piano.  TV’s, CD, Radios, etc. are VERY hard to concentrate with if they can be heard at all.

 

Another thing, almost off topic, that  most don’t think of is ceiling fans. While they don’t make much noise, in and of themselves, they do beat the air like a helicopter and it really messes with the sound waves that are emitted from the piano. It beats those soundwaves all over the place, and creates new beats that mix with the beats of the piano that the tuner is listening for.   So, on a hot day, even though it doesn’t seem to make good sense, don’t be surprised if your tuner asks for the ceiling fans in the room to be turned off.  I’ve learned that I’d rather sweat to death than be frustrated with all those weird beats are produced by the ceiling fan.  If you don’t believe me, try humming into a regular box fan sometime and see what you hear! ; )  Same type of thing!

 

How can you help your tuner…and get a better tuning?

In short, do your tuner (and yourself) a favor, and give them an hour or two of silence so he/she can do their best job. Sure, your tuner will benefit by not being so stressed, but you will benefit the most since the tuner will be able to do the very best tuning possible for your piano, which you will be enjoying for weeks after monotonous pounding ceases!  We know the tuning process is usually not much fun for you, but last I checked, that’s the only way to tune a piano!

 

Until next time, make a joyful noise….(but think quiet during the next tuning)!

 

 

 

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What Lurks Inside Your Piano? Time to Clean!

So, what does lurk inside your piano?

Have you ever even seen the inside of your piano?

I was thinking a lot about this yesterday as I was designing a new page for my website: www.RichardsPianoService.com/cleaning.htmlI’ve come to the conclusion, through many years of servicing pianos, that most customers that I see for the first time have never even seen the inside of their piano, especially owners of uprights.  That is somewhat surprising to me since, at the very least, the lids on uprights need to be raised and the front music desk needs to be removed just in order to tune the piano.  Beyond that, the key cover is often removed and keys sometimes removed for key repair, key adjustments, or to remove that coin that is jammed between two keys, causing them not to function.  On top of that, the bottom knee board is usually removed to inspect the bridge and make any pedal adjustments, and the entire action has to be removed in both uprights and grands in order to service any of the mechanical parts of the piano that have been broken or need adjustment.  While much of that is all in a days work for me, many tuners never make those simple repairs or adjustments, never pull the action, or never clean anything, so all the customer ever sees is the tuning pin area…which on uprights, usually doesn’t collect much dust. That tells me that those customers who act so surprised that their piano comes all apart like it does during regular servicing have either never had their piano tuned, OR, IF their tuner did more than a bare minimum tuning, the customer wasn’t there to see it.  It also tells me that there are a good MANY pianos out there that could stand a good cleaning!

On a grand, only the lid needs to be raised in order to tune the piano, and much of the time, the piano has been left open, so the customer is used to seeing the pinblock, dampers, and strings on their piano.  However, the insides of the piano look somewhat mysterious and fragile, so most grand owners leave the inside pinblock, damper, and string area alone…not knowing what to do.

While keeping your piano closed up all the time will help considerably, a piano will still collect a lot of dust and dirt over time and it will eventually need to be cleaned out to free up the working mechanisms of the piano.  The fact remains that a vast majority of pianos have not been kept closed up all the time and have been collecting dirt for ages.  Many old uprights have never been cleaned in their 80 to 100 years, and it shows when I go to service them!  Grands are often left with their lids up for looks, and dust and dirt will quickly collect on all the horizontal surfaces.

So, what does lurk inside your piano? Every piano gradually collects years of dust and grit inside the piano in places where the piano owner rarely, if ever, will see.  The dust and grit eventually works its way down into all the little nooks and crannies of the piano where all the working mechanisms of the piano are, and it can lead to premature wear and eventually to serious, and costly, mechanical problems.

Typical Junk Found in and around Piano Keys

Typical Junk Found in and around Piano Keys

It is really common to find paper clips, coins, can pull tabs, stamps, stickers, bobby pins, straight pins, rubber bands, pencils, and other foreign objects under the keys and amidst the action’s working parts, especially in homes where there are small children…or if the piano once resided in a home with small children.  Very often the key lid can act just like a postage drop box, depositing pencils into the action area when the  key lid is opened.  A single pencil can cause 5 or 6 keys to jam if it gets lodged in the wrong places. When the jammed key is pressed, small wooden parts inside can break.  Mouse nests and their droppings can jam up the action and cause trouble.  Debris in a piano can sometimes lead to hundreds of dollars in repairs down the road if not removed before permanent damage is done.

 

Years of dust build up under Key Bed.

Years of dust build up under Key Bed.

Technicians (that I happen to know personally)  have found dead birds, mice (see important note below about Hantavirus), envelopes of cash, and “hidden” whiskey bottles from husbands who swore they quit drinking years ago!  I found a home-made dehumidifier once….basically a 100 watt light bulb on a frayed cord, waiting to burn the house down if plugged in.  I found a mouse nest measuring over 15″ in diameter and 3-4″ tall on top of the key sticks in an old upright, and all sorts of other things that don’t belong in pianos.
Your piano will only work as freely as it was designed to if it is clean and free of such debris.

 

 

Grand Key Bed being cleaned

Grand Key Bed being cleaned

Because of all the fragile parts in a piano, it is not recommended for the piano owner to attempt to clean the inside of their piano.  Water and chemicals, etc. can be corrosive to the fragile metal parts of the piano.  Sprays containing oils can cause pin block damage which will lead to slipping tuning pins. Even dusting and vacuuming can cause serious problems if any of the thousands of fragile parts are bumped, snagged, mishandled, broken, misplaced, or accidentally sucked up in the vacuum cleaner.  Cleaning the piano’s interior is best left to the professional piano technician.
I will, however, offer a few things that you can do yourself to help keep your piano clean, and I’ll also suggest things you should leave to guys like me who have the proper training to deal with the more fragile parts of your piano.

 

Here are some things you can do yourself (at your own risk, of course):

All piano owners: First of all, you can keep your piano covered or closed up as much as possible, and vacuum your home on a regular basis, especially if you have shedding pets.  Don’t get in the habit of setting small objects on the piano (paper clips, loose change, etc), and don’t allow children to play on or around the piano with small toys.

Refer to the Piano Technician’s Guild’s webpage for recommendations for dusting and cleaning your piano’s exterior case.  In summary: dust with a feather duster, then slightly damp rag (flannel or microfiber cloth).  DO NOT wipe in circles, but in direction of the grain or direction the finish was applied. make sure any water residue is light enough to quickly evaporate.  Avoid most sprays and polishes, as they can contain oils that can damage the strings and pin block.

Upright owners:  Most of the time it is perfectly alright for you to lift the top lid, and remove the front music desk board. There are usually either a couple screws on either side that hold the board to the piano, or some sliding or rotating wooden latches.  Once the lid is up and front board off, you may vacuum (see important note below about Hantavirus) anywhere along the tops of the keys and off to the sides of the keys at either end of the piano.  Be SUPER CAREFUL not to touch or snag any part of the action.  If there is dust on the felt hammers, you may carefully vacuum the tops of the hammers, but in a front to back motion.  If you snag a hammer side to side, it can wreck the fragile hinge parts inside the action.  I would stay away from the dampers since they are very fragile and a vacuum can do harm to them!  You may also vacuum the tuning pin area, and or use a toothbrush to get any tough places if you wish.  Next, you may remove the bottom knee board by pressing up on the spring retainer clip(s) and pulling the top of the board out first. Lift the board off the pegs that hold it in place at the bottom and set aside. You may vacuum the entire area around the pedal rods and levers.  Not much you can hurt down here, unless you have a humidity control system installed.  Replace the knee board when finished and close up the rest of the piano.  You may clean the key tops with a damp (not wet) rag with some mild dish soap.  For the exterior case, refer to the Piano Technician’s Guild website for recommendations.

Grand owners, It is perfectly fine, and recommended, to vacuum the pin block area and use a toothbrush, pipe cleaner, etc. to loosen dirt in hard to reach areas around the pins and strings. Just be gentle as to not pry against the strings, causing them to shift position.  That can altar your tuning.  Use no water or sprays around the tuning pins!  If you need a bit of moisture to help remove the grime, very lightly dampen the tip of a rag, but keep the water source away from the piano!  You don’t want a cup of water tipped over on your pin block!

Grand Piano plate and soundboard

Grand Piano plate and soundboard

You may vacuum (see important note below about Hantavirus) anything you can see, being careful around the dampers and being careful not to scratch the plate or soundboard with the vacuum nozzle.  If you want, you may purchase a set of felt soundboard cleaners that will help you reach under the strings to clean the soundboard in places the vacuum won’t reach.  Some have used a cloth and yard stick or something flexible to reach under the strings.  Again, for the exterior case, refer to the Piano Technician’s Guild webpage for recommendations.

 

IMPORTANT NOTE about Hantavirus: Mice fecal material can carry Hantavirus, which can be extremely dangerous.  Be sure to use proper mask, latex gloves, etc. while removing mouse/rat infestations.  Scoop and dump the majority of it very carefully so as not to get the contaminants airborne.  Then use a vacuum (with hepa-filter if possible) to clean up the remainder. Click here to find out more information on Hantavirus.

 

If your piano hasn’t been cleaned in several years (or ever, in many cases) it could greatly benefit by having a complete cleaning.  Almost inevitably, you will notice a difference in how your piano plays and sounds just by having it thoroughly cleaned…and hey, any money found in the piano is yours! : )  Usually that amounts to only a few cents…but you never know!

Until next time…Make a Joyful Noise!

 

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Regular Piano Tuning Can Save Big Bucks!

We all know that musically, as well as for the health of the piano, that it is recommended to have your piano tuned regularly.  So, you say…tell me something I don’t know!  OK

 

I recently received an interesting email from an acquaintance of mine which serves as an important reminder of “other” reasons to have your piano serviced regularly.  It seems that having their piano tuned could would have likely saved this couple thousands of dollars.

 

I was called to a very fancy house in a very rich subdivision, (Old money rich), to tune a small grand in the formal sitting room. In addition to tuning, which they admitted hadn’t been done for a couple of years, they asked me to fix a few sticking keys in the 3rd octave. When I pulled the action, I found a dead, and mostly decomposed, black bird, between the tenor and bass hammers. These birds are about 10″ long, and how it got in there is anyone’s guess.

But that’s not the funny part of the story. When I showed the dead bird to the customer she let out a big yelp. She told me that for over a year there was a very bad odor coming from that room, and in order to get rid of the smell, they had the ducts completely cleaned, replaced the carpets and the drapes, painted the room, and replaced all of the furniture. By the time they did all that, the smell was mostly goner, but only because the bird had decomposed. Considering the quality of the carpets, etc, and the size of the room, it must have cost them close to $15,000. They only got the piano tuned and repaired because they were planning a big party, and someone was going to play it.

I guess this is another good reason to get the piano tuned once a year, even when no one is playing it.

Another good reason (and this is totally personal for the piano technician) is that from time to time when a tool is mistakenly left in a piano, it’s always a very nice surprise when you are called back and whala…there’s the tool you’d been missing for the last year or so!  Don’t ask me how I know!     : )  Ok, well it did happen to me once!  I did find a mute that I had dropped in the bottom of a piano a year earlier…thinking I’d remember to retrieve it at the end of the tuning.  For the life of me, I couldn’t remember where I had misplaced that mute …that is until I returned to tun that piano again the following year and there it was.  I’ve also found other technician’s mutes who apparently hadn’t been called back.  Unfortunately, they have been too dry rotted to use.
Anyway, I hadn’t posted in quite a while and thought I’d let you know what was on my mind today….obviously…not much! : )

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How can I tell if my piano needs a pitch-raise (adjustment)?

Pianos are intended to be tuned at A-440, a standard pitch, and if the piano hasn’t been kept in tune regularly, then over time it will gradually slip in pitch.  Once this happens, the strings will need to be tightened back to their proper tension before the piano can be fine tuned.  We call this process a “pitch-raise”, “pitch-adjustment” or “pre-tensioning”.

 

Whenever I speak with a new customer on the phone, one thing that I always  mention is the possibility of the piano needing a pitch-raise before the piano can be fine tuned.  This is true of many pianos that have not been tuned in several years.  While I won’t go into details about pitch adjustments in this post (since I wrote extensively about it in one of my previous posts: Why does my piano need a pitch-raise/lowering), what I would like to do now is to give you some guidance on some practical ways you can find out for yourself if your piano may need a pitch-raise or not. 

 

The way you find out if you need a pitch adjustment is simply to compare your piano’s “A” note(s) to a known reference pitch such as an “A” tuning fork, a “A” generated tone, or an electronic tuner of some sort (guitar tuner, etc.)

 

1) Using a tuning fork will only let you know if you are above or below that pitch, but it will not tell you how much above or below pitch unless you’re very good at counting and calculating beat rates.  Not for the faint at heart…!  Besides, most people don’t have a tuning fork laying around the house.

 

2) Another way is to compare your piano’s “A” to a tone generated “A”.  You can find one on my website.  If you will visit my FAQs page (my website is www.RichardsPianoService.com) and go to the question: Why does my piano need a pitch-raise/lowering…you will find a full explanation of what a pitch-raise is and why it is needed.  While you are there, you will notice an audio file that will play a note (A-440) for you, which is the pitch that pianos are tuned to.  Play the audio file, then play your  “A” note above “middle C” (a diagram is shown to help you find it) and compare the two notes you hear.  If they are about the same, then you likely will not need a pitch raise.  If it sounds much different at all, then your piano is either sharp or flat of standard pitch so you will need to try a different tone to find one that matches your pianos pitch.  As you scroll down the page, off to the right, you will find a few other audio files for several pitches flat of “A-440”.  Again, you can play the “A” on your piano and play these different audio tones to find the one that most closely matches the pitch of your piano.  If you matched the pitches correctly, it will give you an idea of where your piano is in relationship to standard A-440 pitch.

I put this on my website as a help to my potential customers, but I found myself using it while on the phone with the customer!  I have had the customer take the phone to the piano, play the note for me (which I can hear through the phone) and then I play the tones on my website to match the pitch, and it gives us an idea of whether their piano needs a pitch raise or not (and how much) before I ever get to their home.  If  you have any troubles using this feature, I’d be glad to help you with it over the phone.

 

3) The most accurate way would be to use some sort of tuner, ie: a guitar tuner, strobe tuner, or other type musical tuner (there are some free tuning programs or apps that can be downloaded onto your computer or smartphone from the internet).  You set the tuner to “A4 (4th octave)” or A-440), then play your piano’s “A” above “middle C”. It will then show you how sharp or flat your “A” is.  You can check other notes as well with this method.

** One thing that will be helpful to know is that the distance from one note on your piano to the next is considered 100 cents in tuner’s language.  Same as 100%.  So, if your piano is 100 cents low, that means that it has dropped pitch one full tone (say from C down to B, or from A down to Ab (G#).  So, that being true, then a piano that is 50 cents low is only 1/2 tone low and so on.

A piano that is more than several cents flat will need a pitch-raise in order for the fine tuning to be stable. A piano more than 100 cents flat would likely need several pitch raises before it would hold a stable tuning.

 

So, that’s about it.  It really works.  In fact, I had a customer once use the audio tones on my website to check his piano, then when he called for a tuning, he announced that his piano was about 40 cents low.  I had forgotten I had those tone generators on my website, so I asked him how he knew that his piano was that low, to which he proceeded to tell me that he had used the tone generators from my site.   I was then curious to see how accurate his guess was based on him listening and comparing his piano to the tones I offered on the site.  So I got out my Accutuner and had him play his “A” on his piano.  I measured the flatness of the pitch and it was almost exactly 40 cents low. It was really nice heading out to his home knowing what I was in for…and it also prepared him for the extra charges and the extra work that was going to be involved before I ever got there.

 

Oh…..and by the way….you can avoid the complications and added expense of pitch-raises, etc. by simply keeping your piano tuned regularly!  : )  Just thought I’d throw that in for free!

 

Until next time…..make a joyful noise!

 

 

 

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The short answer is “Yes”, I did…tune my piano!

And the long answer is….

Those that read my last blog entry know that I set a date, last Wed, to tune my own piano…so I felt compelled to follow up and say, “Yes”, I in fact did just that.

To be quite honest, it had been close to 2 yrs. since I had tuned it last.  I do play it weekly, and therefore monitor it often, and it seemed to be holding tune pretty well.  So, I was pleased when I found that it was only a couple cents off here and there.  In fact, it was very close to proper pitch and hadn’t slipped much at all since the last tuning, and a few notes were even slightly sharp.  Still, no excuses…I should have tuned it a year ago…just because!

Anyway, I got to thinking about why it seems to be so hard for those in service oriented professions (like mechanics, piano tuners, etc.) to consistently service their own equipment even though they expect it of their customers.  Again, no excuses here, but I would just imagine it has probably has a little bit to do with money…like the fact that we don’t get a paycheck for doing service work on our own things. Not exactly, anyway.  True, we definitely save money by not having to hire it out to someone else, so in essence it is still money in our pocket, but it still isn’t quite the same as getting paid for it.

Besides, if you’re working on cars or pianos all day long for others, why would you, in your right mind, want to come home to work on your own?  To me, it almost seems like there’s something intrinsically wrong with that.  Nevertheless, we do it, but usually not without a few groans here and there, wishing there was something in it for us….but wait….maybe there is after all!

The payoff!  Yes, there really is a payoff after all.

The first payoff came when I finally realized I was in my own home, tuning my own piano.  There are several fringe benefits to this.  I think I was a little over 3/4 the way through my tuning when I realized that I was still in my own home and could actually get up and raid the refrigerator if I wanted to (I didn’t want to…but I could if I wanted to!).  I also realized that I also already knew where the restroom was without having to ask directions…or permission from anyone, which was nice!  I also realized that I had been in “the zone” and was working at my normal pace, and that I could have relaxed a little if I really have wanted to.  No one was pushing me to finish at a certain time and that is a pleasure I’m not always used to.

I should explain what I meant by “the zone”.  It is interesting how once I begin tuning, I am somehow transported to “the zone” as I call it.  It’s the zone of concentration where all that matters is the job at hand.  It’s the same zone that makes my wife wonder if I’m going to die of starvation by missing a meal as I often can do when I’m in “the zone”.   Sure my mind wanders a little in this zone, but when you strive for a perfect tuning every time, I guess it doesn’t matter who’s home you’re in, even your own.

So, the second payoff came when I had tuned the last note and the piano began singing ever so sweetly, as only it can when it’s been freshly tuned.  I always say that there’s nothing quite like a freshly tuned piano.  I could play for hours after a tuning if my customers would let me!  I believe that that is one of my biggest reward in this profession is getting to play a freshly tuned piano at the end each and every tuning.  What a payoff!

And, the third payoff came when I had packed my bags, stood to sign my own sticker in my own piano, and mumbled to myself with a smile on my face….”self…that will be ‘x’ amount of dollars for a job well done!”, chuckling to myself in satisfaction that I have just saved myself a tuning fee by having been able to do it myself.  In this moment, not used to dialoging with myself, I feel I have a bit of a split personality: half piano technician, and half client…for in that moment, I am both.  So, in the spirit of the moment, I say to myself, “thank-you” and “you’re most certainly welcome!”  If I’ve learned anything over the years it’s the importance of being polite to your clients so they will call on you again….
So, with that said, I had so much fun, I think I’ll do it again next year!

 

Until next time, make a joyful noise…and remember that pianos are meant to sing sweetly…and not just once every 10 years!

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The pot calling the kettle black…a tuner’s confession!

I’m guilty as charged!  I found myself caught the other day staring down the proverbial double barrel, caught red handed, cornered, whatever you want to call it….anyway, my conscience got the best of me and I couldn’t deny it.  I have to confess I felt pretty hypocritical.

 

Here’s the situation.  I was sitting in the dentist chair a couple weeks ago for my annual….semi-annual, no…more likely, my bi-decade visit, just wrapping up the visit which proved to be very painful for me.  Not in the teeth either.  It was painful for my conscience, as well as for my wallet.  See, my dentist found that I needed 3 or 4 crowns and a filling since my last visit 4 years or more ago.  Wow.  That will cost me, big time.  As I was leaving, he said something to the effect of, “now don’t be such a stranger”, or “next time, let’s not wait as long”..what he was really saying was…”dude, it’s your own fault for waiting so long.  I could have saved you a bunch of money and a whole lot of pain if you had only kept regular checkups.”

It was at that moment I thought I was listening to myself talking…or at least thinking of what I’ve wanted to say to certain customers at times.  For instance, the customer who told me that they had their piano tuned the week it came home from the store in the early ’80’s, new …then just had it tuned this year…nearly 30 years later.  That was it!  Two tunings in 30 years…and the first one came with the purchase, I guess!  Don’t I feel special, I was the one who was chosen to do the honors after all these years! : )  Yup, we had some catchup work to be done on that piano.

Anyway, back to the dentist chair.  It was at that time that my conscience got the best of me, like a child who stole the cookie from the cookie jar and couldn’t contain his guilt, and I blurted out before I could stop myself…I said to him, and his assistant, “you know, that’s funny you should say that.  I feel so hypocritical.  Here, I’m a piano technician, and I implore my customers to not wait years and years to get their piano serviced, or it will end up costing them  “big time” later…and here I did that very thing with my dental visits.  Wow, do I feel like the pot calling the kettle black”.  He just chuckled…his way of saying that he of course was in total agreement with me!

I say that to say this…that it’s pretty natural for most of us to put off, to forget, or avoid what we know we should do because more important things come up, or we dread the tuner’s/dentist’s visit for whatever reason (see they’re both about the same…you grit your teeth the entire visit!  It’s either the noise of the monotonous pounding of the tuner, or the dreaded noise of the dentist’s drill!)

Many find it interesting that it’s usually the mechanic that drives an old beater and the piano tech who doesn’t have time to tune his own piano…so, I decided I’d better break the stereotype and put my piano on the calendar.  Next Wed. at 11am, I scheduled my own piano to be tuned!  I haven’t gone years or anything like that, but let’s say, I sure understand how my customers feel, as it’s really easy to forget how long it’s actually been.  Time has a way of getting away from ALL of us.

So, I hope this post serves to do both of us some good.  It sure helped me to get that off my chest, and it will surely help me to empathize a little better with my customers…that I truly do understand.  I also hope it helps you to realize that it does sometimes cost more to make repairs than it sometimes does to do preventative maintenance.  Waiting can be costly. Ask me how I know!

It was a lesson that I’m sure everyone can learn from.

Believe me, I’ll be reviewing this little lesson for the next couple months as I have my teeth repairs done!

 

Until next time, make a joyful noise….and make an appointment with your tuner…and dentist while your at it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What causes my piano strings to break, or keep breaking?

Why do my piano strings break, or keep breaking?  Here’s a question that I don’t hear that often, but one that may have an answer you may not have thought of.  Until I studied piano technology, I wouldn’t have thought of it either.  There are the obvious reasons, that we’ll discuss, but there are a couple that I would have not thought of had it not been brought to my attention.

So, what are some of the things that can cause a string to break? 

 

If you think of anything that’s under tension, like a taught rope, a stretched rubber band, and things like that, we know that if the material is compromised in any way, that is the most likely reason for failure.  For instance, we see in the movies the hero, (I’m thinking of Wesley from The Princess’ Bride), climbing the rope up the Cliffs of Insanity, and the villain is at the top feverishly cutting the rope to send the hero to their certain death.  He’s not using an ax, but with a knife…strand at a time…weakening the rope until it finally cannot take the tension any longer.

While a single plain piano string doesn’t have strands, it can weaken to the point of breakage when things such as rust (from excessive moisture in the air) or mouse/cat urine that corrodes the metal on the string.  Each of these are common reasons for string failure.  Unless the damage is very localized, rust throughout the piano can cause many strings to begin breaking, either during tunings, during normal or excessive playing, or even during the day/night when no one is even playing it.   That’s always a joy to hear when you’re not expecting it.

 

Rusty Strings and Tuning Pins

Another way strings fail is excessive tension.  Just like a rope or rubber band, each can only take so much tension before it gives way.  Have you ever pulled a rubber band back…just a little further to get the best flight distance…..just a little further……….snap!  Yes, we’ve all done it, and it always surprises us when it happens.

 

A piano string can fail if excessive tension is placed on it, just like that rubber band.  It can happen by playing excessively hard, or maybe by someone that tries to tune the piano but doesn’t know whether he is above or below pitch, gets disorientated, and before you know it, has raised the string too far leading to a broken string.  Also, a common thing to happen to less experienced tuners, and sometimes to even experienced tuners, is for the tuning lever to be inadvertently placed on the wrong tuning pin, and thus raising the tension of a string that is muted off.  Pitch doesn’t change, so they keep turning the pin and snap!  Oops, only to find that they were turning the wrong pin.  Sometime a loose tuning pin will cause a tuner to accidently apply too much pressure too quickly, raising the pitch too far and breaking a string.  This happens usually when most of the piano has normal or tight tuning pins and the tuner’s muscle memory is used to applying a  certain tension in order to get the tuning pin to move.  Then when the tuner gets to a loose pin, that same tension will be way too much for that pin, causing it to raise quickly.  Here’s a funny and practical example to illustrate that.  My mother used to have a plastic bowl that we used for serving popcorn, however, it looked like cut glass.  We had company over and everyone is passing the bowl around the table.  When it came to our guest, they were expecting a heavy leaded crystal bowl, so they prepared their muscles to counter act the weight.  Needless to say, their upward force was MUCH more than necessary for the light, plastic bowl, and popcorn went everywhere!  Same thing happens sometimes to tuners.

 

Less common, maybe, are causes dues to defects in the string, or a defect in how the piano was built.  Maybe the pressure or capo bar has too much “V” to it where the string passes over/under and when the string is hit hard with the hammer, that “V” acts like cutters on a pair of pliers, weakening the string at that spot over time until it finally gives way.  Again, this is not very common, but on some models of pianos, I’ve heard that this was a problem.

 

Now to the reasons that I think piano owners should be aware of that maybe aren’t as obvious as those mentioned already.

 

There are two things that can contribute to string breakage beyond what was mentioned already, and that is worn or hard hammers, and a piano out of regulation (adjustment).

 

Hammers that are worn can get very flat on the crown where the string contacts the string.  A properly shaped hammer has a sort of tear drop shape that is very symmetrical and the point that contacts the string is relatively small.  The hammer hardness should allow for a good rebound off the string, kind of like a super ball…but definitely not hard like a marble or a soft like a cotton ball (forgive the extremes).  When the hammer is flat and worn on the crown, there is more surface area, and more force applied to the string which can cause breakage.

 

It is VERY important to keep the hammers properly shaped and voiced, not only for the better tone it provides, but for the very health of the strings and other action parts that may be affected.

Another contributing factor is a piano out of regulation.  When a piano is badly out of regulation, it throws many things out of whack, including how much force it takes to throw the hammer to the strings.  You should not have to pound the keys to get a medium loud sound.  If you do have to, this is a good sign that there is (what we technicians call) lost-motion.  In plain english, this means that your key is moving downward a bit before the jack ever contacts the hammer to start the hammer’s movement toward the string.  The more lost motion (slop as some call it), the less power you have, and the more you feel you need to bang the keys to get it to play.

 

Worn hammer vs Properly Shapped Hammer

Let-off is a VERY important adjustment that if not correct can lead to broken hammer shanks and sometimes broken strings.  Let-off adjusts exactly how close the hammer can get to the string while being forced there by the key (pressing up on the jack, which presses on the hammer). As soon as let-off occurs, the jack trips out from under the hammer butt, or knuckle and the hammer finished it’s travel (about 1/16″ or so)  to the string by inertia alone.  If this setting is incorrect, the hammer will either let-off too soon, losing power, or it will not let-off soon enough…or not at all and the key then is slamming the hammer all the way to the string, full force and the hammer is not allowed to rebound by itself.  This is called blocking, and usually will sound more like a “thud” than allowing the string to ring freely.  This is because the hammer is being slammed, and held against the string for as long as the key is held down.  This needs to be corrected immediately.   

 

So, any one of these factors can cause string breakage, but in reality, it us usually a combination of several of these factors that cause strings to break.  I am continually amazed at the number of 100+ year old pianos out there that still have their original strings and are tuned up making very acceptable music for their owners!  I guess that I am amazed that more strings don’t break than do.

 

As long as we have strings, we will have strings that break…so go easy on your tuner if a string breaks while they are tuning.  It does happen, and it’s usually not their fault.  However, if you are having an issue of broken strings, you may need to talk with your technician to see if there are any repairs or regulation that needs to be taken care of.

 

Until next time…..make a joyful noise!

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